Catalina Experience Staff Blog

The Three-Day Catalina (Life!) Experience


I’m the guy they call “boss” at Whites Landing. (Although, truth be told, it is the hard-working staffers at the camp who are the real boss.) I got a call a few days prior to my visit to Whites from our program director, and she informed me that we would be short-handed this week and that she needed me to help with program instruction. I noticed Arcadia Christian School was scheduled for that time, so I asked to be paired with that school. ACS and I go way back, so I knew they would be somewhat forgiving of my rusty skills (it had been some time since I taught program). We boarded the Catalina Classic Cruises ferry “Sentinel” on a Wednesday morning for the two-hour boat ride to Whites Landing. For the two days leading up to our trip, a Northwest wind had been blowing pretty hard and the residual swell still lingered in the San Pedro Channel, so our boat ride was a bit rocky. Capt. Ryan Palmer was kind enough to alter our course and speed up the boat to minimize the affect, but several passengers still got seasick. However, we soon arrived safe and sound at Whites Landing around 11:30 AM and had a brief orientation from our program director, Prestyn McCord.

A Reunion Worth Mentioning

I felt as though I was getting together with old friends as I filled in for program specialist Scott Sperber to conduct program for Arcadia Christian School. (Scott had a family emergency.) I first had the opportunity to work with this fine school in 1991. In those days, we used to spend 3 days and 2 nights aboard the research excursion vessel “Conqueror” at Two Harbors, Catalina Island. “Conqueror” was operated by Long Beach Marine Institute for many years before it was retired in 2012, and it was on that vessel that I got my start in the outdoor education business back in 1984.  (Wow! Has it really been 30 years?) Mary Letterman, who is, coincidently, the current principal of Arcadia Christian, was an associate of mine in those days and was very helpful as I developed the education program to be conducted aboard “Conqueror.” She had had some experience on the research vessel “Vantuna,” which was, at the time, owned and operated by Occidental College.

Arcadia Christian School has been a partner in my personal efforts to conduct meaningful marine science education adventures for school children for more than 20 years, so it was a great opportunity for me to personally work with them once again. My duties at The Catalina Experience do not usually allow me to work as a program specialist, and I appreciate our program director’s patience with me as I learned the excellent system she has compiled in order to offer what I believe to be one of the finest outdoor education programs available. I must admit that I colored outside the lines here and there, and I am sure it caused some frustration on the part of the program staff working with the other schools in camp last week. I offer my apologies for any inconvenience I might have caused, and I will try to do better if presented the opportunity again. Regardless, I know that Arcadia Christian and I had a great time, and we all grew in our appreciation of the nature and phenomenon that is associated with Catalina Island. Following is an account of our time together.

Getting our Feet Wet

We began our island adventure after lunch (mmm…scratch-made pizza!) with a workshop on marine fish and invertebrates. We discussed snorkeling as a tool of discovery and set out to observe the fish and other marine life that are so abundant in and around Whites Cove. Arcadia C.S. sends their 7th grade students to our camp, so I found myself introducing them to more than marine life. I also had to show them how to use snorkeling equipment and how to put on a wetsuit. As it turns out, wetsuits can be difficult for first-timers, and some of them even put them on backwards. You can imagine how disappointed these students were after struggling to fit into a skin-tight suit, they were told that they have to take it off, turn it around and do it all over again! Actually, it was kind of funny, and they took it in stride and carried on like the truly rugged oceanographic explorers I knew they could be. After suiting up, we all took a dip to get used to the water then donned our masks and snorkels and set out to explore under the watchful eye of our head lifeguard, Jenny Ramirez. I assigned each of the three study groups a specific fish to observe, and asked them to report on the behavior they witnessed. We decided to try to find and observe the state marine fish Garibaldi, the Kelp Bass and the California Sheephead. We found that the Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) was the most conspicuous and numerous of the three fish. The students told me that they noticed that they were solitary and spaced apart into territories. We also discovered that the Garibaldi defended its territory and carefully cultivated a specific type of red algae to line its nest.


Gettting used to the water before snorkeling

The workshop continued Wednesday afternoon with a visit to our touch lab and a discussion of marine invertebrate phyla and their characteristics. We talked about the most common phyla: Echinodermata, Mollusca, Arthropoda and Cnidaria. Then we found that some of these were represented in our touch tank. We found members of Echinodermata: a long spined sea urchin, a sea cucumber, a banded brittle star and a fragile sea star. The students had the chance to feel on their hands the sea urchin “walk” using its tube feet and spines. Among the members of Mollusca were the kelp snail with its bright orange “foot,” some rock snails, a few tegula and a giant keyhole limpet. The Arthropods included barnacles on live rock and some blue-clawed hermit crabs. There were no cnidarians, but we did find a pelagic tunicate, a group of animals also known as salps. Tunicates are members of the subphylum Tunicata (also known as Urochordata) and are a primitive form of chordate. Many members of this group alternate generations as solitary forms and colonial strings. They are often found drifting near the surface both in the open ocean and in coastal areas.


Having some invertebrate fun at the touch tank

Next, we combed the beach looking for evidence of local marine invertebrates. Most of the common species that inhabit the cove leave behind a hard shell or exoskeleton, and prevailing currents and beach surge drive the remains to the shore. The molts and shells are often deposited as the tide ebbs, and we can find them along the windrow line at the high tide mark. This activity serves to help us understand what mollusc or arthropod might be dominant in the area. The ACS students embarked on the “treasure” hunt enthusiastically and immediately discovered an overwhelming number of sand crab (or “mole crab”) molts. It was a sign that the mole crabs where experiencing a growth spurt of sorts. The dominant mollusk turned out to be the purple olive snail, an animal we also observed in life as we snorkeled over the sandy bottom earlier in the afternoon. Other remains collected included those of the parchment worm, coffee bean snail, swimming crab, rock oyster, California cone snail, a variety of clams and several skeletal sections of marine birds. The beach combing activity wrapped up our first workshop and we took a break to clean up and eat dinner. We had turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy. There was also salad and vegetables, but I personally didn’t have room for all that healthy stuff. I was carb-loading so I could keep up with 12-year-olds. (At least, that’s what I told myself.)

A Night to Remember

Our evening workshop was an exciting new program that took us out into the cove at night aboard a 24-passenger U.S. Navy whaleboat. The yet unnamed whaleboat has been recently repowered and re-fitted to serve as a floating classroom for The Catalina Experience. We began in the camp’s field lab with a discussion of marine plankton, including in our talk facts about phytoplankton (drifting plants) and zooplankton (drifting animals). Our boat captain, Jeremy Plummer, then brought the whaleboat in to load us at the pier and, after a safety briefing, we cruised to the outer part of Whites Cove (about a ¼ mile out.) Our goal was to get to a point where the water depth was at minimum 100’ so we could deploy underwater lighting designed to attract marine plankton and the small fish that “filter feed” on the tiny, drifting marine organisms. Typically, the lighting also attracts the opalescent squid. We had a squid dissection scheduled for the second night at camp, so we hoped to see them in life during our “cove at night” program.


Our newly restored U.S. Navy Whaleboat

There was a light offshore breeze that evening as we deployed the lights and waited patiently for the marine life to present itself. An occasional gust kept our skipper busy as he expertly achieved station-keeping with the whaleboat. As we awaited the arrival of the zooplankton, we chatted about what might turn up. As in any field experiment, you can usually expect the unexpected, and not everything you attempt is successful. We talked about the local food web and how it was reasonable to expect small filter feeding fish to arrive soon after the zooplankton. The small fish usually attract larger pelagic predators, including mackerel, bass and even seals and sea lions. One not-so-small fish that feeds on plankton is the California flying fish (Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus). Catalina is famous for the flying fish tours out of Avalon, and we see them quite often in and around Whites Cove. During our excursion, we saw only one flying fish and just a few passing squid, but that was enough to attract the attention of a much larger predator.

Just beyond the corona created by our lights we heard the sound of a large splash. The sound startled many of us, and we peered into the night in an attempt to identify its source. A slick faint body emerged, and then it quickly descended. As the excitement settled and we began to wonder just what it might be, a large ghostly shape deep in the water and barely reflecting our light shot past beneath the boat. It was definitely hunting.

It was our captain, Jeremy, who pointed out that sea lions remain on the periphery of the light to avoid detection and use man-made objects such as boats and piers as backboards for flying fish. They pursue their prey underwater, triggering the flight mechanism of the fish and directing them to bludgeon themselves against an immovable object. The simple task of scooping up the fish as it lay stunned is all that remains. That was exactly what was happening, but a second sea lion joined the fray. As I mentioned earlier, their appeared only one flying fish, and our two marine mammals decided to fight over it. It was very exciting as they growled and bit one another in order to determine dominance. The larger of the two males eventually won its prize and promptly gulped it down. We talked a little about the difference among seals and sea lions, and then we headed back to the pier. Later, while the students were getting ready for bed, Jeremy called me as he was preparing the boat for it’s mooring and related that several flying fish were being corralled into our floating dock by the two sea lions. One fish even ended up on the dock. As it turns out, we attracted the prey and they followed us into port. The sea lions had a nice meal. I guess it was the least we could do for the show they put on for us.

So that was day one, and only a half-day of program at that. We all got tucked in for the night and looked forward to a full day of exploring on Thursday.

There’s a First Time for Everything

We had a breakfast of Waffles and eggs (there was whole wheat in the waffles, but I didn’t mind. It gave me an excuse to have a second one). Then it was time for our Thursday morning workshop: Coastal Life. In this workshop, our goal was to explore the coast with a kayak, learn to recognize the marine birds in the area and do a cursory survey of the near coastal marine habitats, including the kelp forests and rocky intertidal shore. We had a lot to accomplish before the lunch break, so we began promptly at 9:00 AM.

I have for many years favored the kayak as a tool of exploration. Quietly paddling a kayak into shallow areas and rocky grottos is an excellent way to observe coastal life up close. The clear water of Catalina Island allows for observers to see habitat and fish without even getting very wet. As with all young students, we spent some time getting to know our watercraft and demonstrating the skills necessary to maneuver. After a short lesson, we set out to explore the coast, students in tandem kayaks, the rest of us in our singles, and the ever-present Jenny-the-lifeguard watching our back. We rafted up just off shore and began our excursion there.

Our first stop was to be in an adjacent cove called Hen Rock, named for a rock structure that resembles a hen sitting on a clutch of eggs. There we saw a nesting pair of Western Gulls feeding on the rocks as the tide exposed the marine life of the intertidal zone. I wanted to stop to discuss the nesting site, so I asked one of the students, Andre, and his kayaking buddy to grab a mooring line as they approached me for the purpose of rafting up a second time. Well, Andre missed the line and “t-boned” my kayak. The nose of his kayak slipped under the side of mine and promptly flipped me over. In all the years I have been leading kayak tours, this was the only time I had ever fallen over. I guess there’s a first time for everything! (Or, I’m just getting old.) It was all very funny, and the students brought their kayaks along side to assist in my not-so-graceful recovery (I shouldn’t have had that second waffle). I managed to get back into my kayak, but I lost my prescription sunglasses. I was flying blind from there on out.


Kayaks can be a great way to survey the coast

I squinted into the distance and decided on our next destination. There were some tall, flat-faced rocks nearby where we could see the distinct zonation of the intertidal. Each of the zones exposed at low tide is dominated by a distinct organism. On the face of the rock structure known as Hen Rock, we could see the grayish buckshot barnacles in the high tide zone, the pinkish volcano barnacles populated the middle tide zone, and brown algae was the most conspicuous in the lower tide zone. Next, we moved on to the kelp bed that surrounded a large near-shore islet. The islet was covered in white, being a favorite hangout of a variety of marine birds, including the brown pelican and several species of cormorant. Just beyond in deep water stood several acres of kelp forest. We paddled our kayaks atop the canopy and had ourselves a little snack.

The giant kelp is the largest of the marine alga. It can grow up to 3 feet in a day, and its blades are rather tasty. Many of these brave students followed my example and had a bite as we discussed the holdfast, stalks, blades and gas bladders that make up the plant. We piled up some of the algae into our boats looking for epizoans, animals that live on the plant. We were looking for something in particular, an isopod named “idotea” that matches the golden brown of the kelp precisely, and, just when I thought we were to be unsuccessful, one of the girls found it [citation needed, I forgot her name]. Everyone was doing well and the seas were calm, so we decided to try to reach Long Point in search of seals before heading back to the beach. We made it to Long Point, a distance of about 1 mile from our beach, but saw no seals. In fact, I saw mostly blurry shades of brown and blue, considering my temporarily uncorrected astigmatism.


A marine isopod called “idotea” matches the color of kelp

We were leisurely kayaking back to Whites Cove when I realized that we were supposed to be back by 10:30 so that another class could take out the kayaks. I picked up the pace and we landed on the beach about a quarter after 11:00. Oops. My extremely patient colleagues were waiting for us when we arrived, and they were able to get started soon after. The Arcadia students and I dried off, I grabbed a pair of corrective lenses, and we continued our workshop at the rocky intertidal habitat on the east side of Whites Cove.

Close Encounter of the Slithering Kind

The rocky outcropping that divides Whites Cove and Moonstone Cove is a great place to explore at low tide. It was unfortunate for me that I had not the time to discuss one of my favorite subjects, that of the dance of astronomical forces — both centripetal and gravitational — that causes the ebb and flow of tides. A brief introduction is all that time allowed before we began in earnest the most exciting activity available while the shoreline was exposed. We went eeling. (Yes. We made up that word.)

I remember the first time I encountered a moray eel in the tide pools. I was conducting a tide pool tour many years ago at Little Corona Beach (in Corona Del Mar, CA), when a young boy approached me holding his finger. “A fish bit me.” He said simply.

I laughed and said, “Tide pool fish don’t bite, silly. You must have scraped your finger on a barnacle.”

“No. A fish bit me,” is all he said in reply. He showed me the tide pool, and, sure enough, likely trapped while searching for food and stranded by the tide, there was a 2-foot long moray.

“It appears,” I said sheepishly, “that a fish bit you.” Lucky for him, and for me I suppose, he still had his finger.

Moray Eels are one of about 200 species of eels. Eels have no scales and produce a lot of mucus. Morays have pharyngeal jaws (jaws in their throat) that extend into the mouth when capturing prey such as fish, molluscs, cephalopods and crustaceans (and the occasional finger). We know they like squid, because that is what we use to bait them into the shallows so that students can see them. We put squid on the end of a stick, attaching it with a clothespin. The act of dipping the squid into the water at the right location attracts the eel and brings it into view. While some of us did this, others explored the rocks looking for the common lined shore crab, the solitary green anemone and the blue clawed hermit crab. It was all great fun and we managed to keep all our fingers, then it was time for lunch. I really like the chicken potpie that Chef Tony makes, so I made sure we would not be late for that.

Let the Games Begin

A youth camp experience would not be complete without a little healthy competition. Arcadia Christian School students split into three teams and competed for points on the Whites Landing low ropes challenge course. The campers were well up to the task as they worked together to determine the best course of action for each element of the apparatus. Their communication, drive to succeed and interest in each other’s success was very impressive. By and by, they all made it through the challenge and we moved on to a new experiment in teamwork.


Even the chaperones got in on the action!

The camp purchased 10 stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) last year, and I wanted to find a way to integrate them into our program. I thought we might try a SUP relay where two team mates on two boards paddle out into the cove and exchanged boards while standing up. 2 points would be awarded for a stand-up switch, and 1 point would be awarded for a switch while kneeling or lying down. It was going fine until some gusty wind showed up and forced us to abort the activity. One paddler was having difficulty turning into the breeze, so Mr. Goh (a particularly athletic chaperone) saved the day by paddling a kayak out to rescue her. Go Mr. Goh!

The afternoon finished with a nice volleyball game amongst the students of ACS, and we all went for a nice dinner of hand-rolled burritos.


Taking a break from science for some beach volleyball

What’s in a Name?

It was our final evening at camp, and I was preparing for a squid dissection activity when I discovered that some of what I had learned about our local squid was out of date. Our understanding of nature is ever changing and maturing as accumulated knowledge increases and technology advances. Sometime in the last 30 years, some marine biologist or another decided that Loligo opalescens would be better described taxonomically as Doryteuthis opalescens. Well, shame on me for not keeping up. It’s like that time in high school that I learned all about phylum Coelenterata (and I wrote a darn good paper about it, too), just to learn a few years later that “Coelenterate” had become obsolete, and I had to learn about the TWO phyla that were once considered part of Coelenterata: Cnidara and Ctenophora. That’s progress, and I’m happy to know that there are hard working taxonomists, zoologists and biologists out there causing just enough confusion to keep us hopping (and sell new text books.)

Once I got my facts strait, we convened in the lab and began our dissection. After going through the external and internal anatomy of the squid, we made calamari with the edible parts and passed the snack around. A campfire and s’mores were on the agenda next, and then it was time for a well-deserved rest.

Bon Voyage

Friday morning we packed up before a breakfast of French toast and sausage, and then we proceeded to an activity where each of the study groups constructed a survival shelter. Shelter building is part of the Survival workshop, and, to my great relief, they preferred this activity to a 90-minute hike. The shelters, made from branches, bark and palm fronds found in the area, turned out very nice, being sturdy and somewhat rainproof. We tested them by throwing a bucket of water on each. I think the chaperones in their shelter got the wettest!


Rainproofing a shelter using palm fronds

By 11:30 it was time to board the ferry back to Long Beach. I had a great time getting to know a new generation of Arcadia Christian School students. I hope their experience was as rewarding as mine. I would like to thank Prestyn, Jenny, Jeremy and Chef Tony for all that they did for us, Danielle for her patience on kayak day, Jeivy and Brett for keeping the camp in good working order while we were there and Jordan and Edwin for cooking and cleaning for us. Its amazing what it takes to make something like our 3-day adventure happen smoothly, and I am very proud of the staff at Whites Landing. Keep up the good work. It makes a profound difference in the life of our campers.

by Eugene Anderson, Co-Founder and CEO

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The Catalina Experience™
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At the Catalina Experience, we believe that every summer in a young person’s life is an opportunity to slow down, open up and explore. We provide experiences that nourish body and spirit, and in doing so, allow them to connect with nature and discover more about who they are.